by Jonathan Freedland | The Guardian | 4 November 2004
Once it looked like an aberration. Now it is an era. George W Bush's tenure of the White House was born in 2000 to an electoral quirk, the fruit of a Florida fiasco, the arcane algebra of the US electoral system, and a split decision of the supreme court.
It seemed to be the accidental presidency, one that would stand out in the history books as a freak event.
Yesterday that changed, changed utterly. President Bush and his Republican army recorded a famous victory, one that may come to be seen as more than a mere election triumph - rather, a turning point in American life, a realignment.
For 12 hours that fact was obscured by the fate of Ohio, and the desperate Democratic desire to see if that pivotal state might be wrested from Republican hands. By late morning the challenger John Kerry realised it was a vain hope. This was no Florida 2000.
For George Bush had done more than rack up the requisite numbers in the electoral college. He had done what he signally failed to do four years ago, win the popular vote - and not by a sliver, but by a 3.5m margin.
Bush had also achieved what no one had managed since his father in 1988, winning more than 50% of the vote. But, of course, he had outdone his father, becoming a member of that surprisingly small, select club of presidents who have won two full terms.
That alone would ensure that this first decade of the 21st century would become the Bush era, just as the 1980s belonged to Ronald Reagan, and the 1990s to Bill Clinton. But there was more.
The Republicans expanded their presence in the 100-seat Senate from 51 to 55 seats, beating Democrats in almost every close contest and toppling their senate leader. They increased their majority in the House of Representatives, too. Under Bush the Republican party has won clear control of both the legislative and executive branches of the US government - with a mandate whose legitimacy no one can doubt.
But the Republican revolution will not stop there. A subplot to this week's drama has been playing out at the supreme court, where the 80-year old Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, has been incapacitated by thyroid cancer. Few expect him to serve for much longer, giving President Bush the chance to appoint a successor. A social conservative, such as White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, is a likely nominee.
Other vacancies on the bench are imminent. Once filled, Bush will have overturned the court's wafer-thin moderate majority. The court could set to work unravelling a 50-year settlement that has asserted the rights of women, black Americans and, more recently, homosexuals. Opposition to affirmative action or abortion rights has, until now, been a minority position in America's highest court. That could change. And the conservative takeover of all three branches of the American government (executive, legislative and judiciary) would be complete.
So George Bush will be no footnote to history: he is instead making it.
Those outside America, in the chanceries of Europe and beyond, who hoped that this would be a passing phase, like a Florida hurricane that wreaks havoc only to blow over, will instead have to adjust to a different reality.
For four years many hoped that the course charted by President Bush - a muscular go-it-alone view of a world divided between the forces of darkness and those of light - would prove to be a blip. Come November 2, 2004, they wanted to believe, normal service would be resumed. The United States would return to the old way of doing business, in concert with allies and with respect for the international system the US itself had done so much to create. The norms of foreign policy pursued by every president from Roosevelt to Clinton, including the first George Bush, would be revived. Senator Kerry promised as much.
Now that fantasy will be shelved. The White House is not about to ditch the approach of the last four years. Why would it? Despite the mayhem and murder in Iraq, despite the death of more than 1,000 US soldiers and countless (and uncounted) Iraqis, despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction, despite Abu Ghraib, the Bush administration won the approval of the American people. If Bush had lost the neo-conservative project would have been buried forever. But he won, and the neo-cons will welcome that as sweet vindication.
So it will be full steam ahead. "There are real threats that have to be dealt with," Danielle Pletka of the impeccably neo-con American Enterprise Institute told the Guardian yesterday. Iran would not go away - indeed, Ms Pletka warned, "force might be the only option" - nor would North Korea. "We can't all pretend that the world would be a prettier place if only George W Bush was not the president."
There were plenty of people around the globe who used to think precisely that way, hoping that the past four years were a bad dream which would end yesterday. Now they have to navi gate around a geopolitical landscape in which President Bush is the dominant, fixed feature.
But yesterday's victory also signalled a shift in America itself. It has been under way for several decades, but now it is revealed in all its clarity. The electoral map showed it in full colour: "blue" coasts where the Democrats won, vast "red" swaths of the Republican heartland everywhere else.
Democrats need to stare long and hard at that map and at this comprehensive defeat. Exit pollsters, who failed so dismally to predict the result, made some telling discoveries. Many Bush voters admitted their unhappiness on Iraq and confessed to great economic hardship - two issues which ordinarily would be enough to defeat an incumbent. But these voters backed Mr Bush, because he reflected something they regarded as even more important: their values.
Those values can be boiled down to issues - abortion, guns, gays - but they represent a larger, cultural difference. One Republican analyst asks people four questions. Do you have a friend or relative serving in the military? Do you have any personal ties to rural America? Do you attend religious services on a weekly basis? Do you own a gun? Answer yes to most or all of those, and you are "a cultural conservative" and most likely vote Republican. Answer no, and the chances are you live on the east or west coast and vote Democrat.
In 2000 this cultural split was dead-even: 50-50 America. This time it was 51-49 America, with the conservatives in the majority.
Put plainly, the US is moving steadily and solidly to the right. That poses a problem for Democrats, who have to learn to speak to the people of those red states if they are ever to hold power again.
But it also poses a problem for America, which has somehow to house two radically diverging cultures in one nation. And it may even pose a problem for the rest of the world's peoples, as they watch the sole superpower, the indispensable nation, chart a course they fear - and barely understand.